At 6am last Saturday, as Beijing’s streets emptied of sweaty summer night revelers - the men with cotton shirts rolled way above their beer bellies to fend off the summer heat and the ladies chugging herbal cooling teas (liang cha), my friend Xiaomo headed to the hospital to cure her winter ailments.
It was the first day of the san fu, or the three hottest periods of the year based on the Chinese almanac. It also marked the start of a season of “dong bing xia zhi” (treating winter ills during summer) for masses of Chinese.
This includes well-educated, professionals in their 20s like Xiaomo. After waiting in line for two hours along with dozens of other eager patients, she was given traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) treatments like acupuncture and patches stuffed with pungent herbs, which were stuck onto her body at specific acupoints.
These patches are called san fu tie, as they only work during the summer heat of the “sanfu” period to cure illnesses that built up during the winter.
From colds to headaches, accumulation of phlegm, asthma or shallow breathing and some kidney problems, the best time to fix these problems is at the height of the summer heat, say TCM experts.
This was when the body’s “yang” - the bright, positive, masculine aspect of nature which is balanced by the dark, negative, feminine principle of “yin” - is nourished.
So “dong bing xia zhi” is a way to restore one’s yin-yang equilibrium to an optimal level before the harsh winter sets in, Xiaomo said.
Since having her blocked sinuses cleared three years ago, she swears by this annual ritual.Despite her enthusiasm, she did not succeed in persuading me to haul myself out of bed that Saturday to join her.
But she did pique my interest enough to find out more at a TCM clinic this week, where rows of patients were undergoing another popular remedy ai jiu.
Translated as moxibustion, it refers to the burning of ai cao (mugwort leaf herb) in order to release its healing elements into one’s acupoints.
These are applied to one’s back, chest, neck and other parts of the body - even the head.
There were a number of little kids sitting around with strange wooden contraptions, filled with the burning herbs, tied to their crowns.
“I’m told it helps to get rid of han (chills) and improve blood circulation in the brain and to the eyes,” said one mother in her 30s, who gave her surname as Zhang.
“They say the smaller the child, the better the dong bing xia zhi treatment will be in improving immunity and preventing child asthma,” she added, as she tried to calm her 4-year-old son, who was squirming around, as pungent smoke curled out of his head-gear.
A third remedy, which can also be used during other seasons, is “cupping”. It is still popular during the summer to deal with complaints like backaches and chills - ostensibly the side effects of too much air-conditioning.
This ancient TCM practice consists of glass cups that are heated with an alcohol-soaked burning cotton ball placed inside to remove all the oxygen. The vacuum created anchors the cup onto the patient’s back or neck, opening up the skin’s pores and stimulating blood flow to draw out toxins and bad substances like chills.
It leaves raw red circles on the skin, which used to shock me four years ago when I saw Chinese girls in tank tops sporting these prominent marks on the nape of their necks.
But nowadays, I have come to associate the dog days of summer with such TCM remedies.
As for myself, I stick to simple cures like drinking “cooling” green bean soup and liang cha.